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July 06, 2008


Adam Sweeting

Thank you for posting this memorial to the late Grace Paley, one of the true giants of 20th century fiction and poetry.

I would like to share a story of an afternoon I spent with Grace Paley in Somerville in 2003.

That summer, I hosted a conference of environmental writers at Boston University. One of our featured speakers was Grace Paley, who agreed to read for a fee substantially less than she typically received for such gatherings. And despite being quite elderly and frail, she insisted on taking the Greyhond Bus to Boston rather than accept our offer of sending someone to pick her up in Vermont.

I'm not sure I ever heard a poet who captivated an audience the way Paley did at that session. Awed silence is the best way to describe the reaction. In particular, I'll never forget the poems and stories she read about her father.

But for me, the greatest treat was sharing lunch with Paley at the Burren in Davis Square. After the reading, the conference organizers offered to take her for lunch in Boston, but she wanted to go to Somerville, which she said was one of her favorite cities. I can't recall her exact quote, but it was something like, "if I lived in the Boston area, I'd live in Somerville."

Paley did not want a large crowd to join her, and instead requested to have a quiet lunch with me (the conference organizer and Somerville resident) and an old friend from Houston who was in town for the event. After listing our city's many dining possibilities, she chose the Burren, because, she said, "pubs are good for conversation." Over a nearly two hour meal she told stories of her childhood in the Bronx, of her love for her husband and daughter in Vermont, and of the many causes she supported over the years. The talk was frank, at times funny, and always moving. After lunch, she asked for help hailing a cab and headed to South Station where she caught a bus back to Vermont.

I count myself lucky to have shared such a moment with one of America's great writers. And that it happened here in Somerville, a city Paley adored, made it all the more special.

Adam Sweeting
School Committee -- Ward 3

Yorktown Street

I heard Grace Paley speak in Ann Arbor in 1985. She said then that growing up Jewish had taught her always to give money to people on the street who ask. "You don't know--they might really need it!" Whenever she left home, her pockets wer full of quarters.

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